The European federations are a tad miffed. On the one hand, they can understand why their leading youngsters want to head to the United States for a college education and the accompanying golf experience. And why, after four years in that land of golfing plenty, they so often want to stay put. On the other, they worry on behalf of those for whom the system does not work – and they worry for themselves.
“For years our talents have been migrating to the US,” said Christophe Muniesa, the secretary general of the French Golf Federation. “When it works, it is great for the French young. … And it’s even more appealing today thanks to a link-up between the PGA Tour and the NCAA which makes it possible for students to graduate straight to the Korn Ferry Tour.”
Switching to the women’s side of things, you have only to look at Céline Boutier (pictured above) for a grand success story. After four great years at Duke University, Boutier qualified at once for the LPGA Tour and went on to bag four points towards last year’s European victory at the Solheim Cup.
Yet, as Muniesa emphasises in a letter of backing for Edge Golf College – the new golf-performance-cum-education establishment which will have its headquarters at Troia Golf in Portugal – the US system does not work for everyone. “Some of them (US college players) either return early without staying on to get a full diploma or they are dissatisfied with the experience,” he said. “As a federation within this framework, we have been waiting for an alternative to be available in Europe. … It’s high time that it happens so that we can keep the players closer to home and on a continual development plan."
As things stand at the moment, 96 French players are decamping to the States for the 2020-21 season.
In these circumstances, not too many will be surprised to learn that Muniesa's organisation are happily prepared to invest time and resources in the aforementioned Edge College, an establishment which is the brainchild of Englishman Neil Connolly, currently a PGA professional in Portugal who has spent the past 15 years looking for a European answer to the college golf set-up.
The Portuguese Golf Federation, meanwhile, are saying much the same as their French counterparts. In his letter of backing for the new college, federation president Miguel Franco de Sousa spells out his thoughts on his country’s elite juniors: “For these players there are only two options. If they don’t want to stay in education we lose them to the professional game, and if they do want to stay in education, we lose them to the States. This cycle has been going on now for decades with no third alternative, even though we have asked for this situation to be remedied. Nobody seems able to solve the problem – until now, that is.”
“Even for amateur purposes, promising boys and girls will often leave school early to play full time, while those who stay the course with their schooling will not necessarily do more than a couple of years at their US college."
De Sousa goes on to address his concerns specifically as they apply to players who pour their all into trying to make it as professionals and fail. “They usually drop out of the game altogether,” he said, “at which point they are no longer in position to inspire the next generation.” Nor, he adds, are they able to take on the kind of ambassadorial roles in the amateur game which used to be the province of great amateurs of the past.
Much the same, incidentally, applies in the UK where the powers-that-be often struggle to find Walker and Curtis Cup captains in that most of the likely candidates nowadays are trying to make it in the professional world at one level or another. More and more, as people are beginning to recognise, the amateur game is becoming an extension of the junior arena rather than doing what it used to do in embracing players of all ages and from a host of different professions.
At Edge College, Connolly and his team of specialists will offer two years of golf at Troia’s famous Robert Trent Jones Snr course (it is regularly voted among Europe’s top 10), along with an education in the realm of tournament performance, performance psychology and business studies. The above, in turn, will prepare students for a third year at the University of Central Lancashire or a university of their choice, with this end of the operation offering a series of graduation options for roles in the golfing industry. (Interestingly, Edge College are sponsoring a swing of three events from the Global Junior Golf tour in Portugal in November, with anything up to 70 of the players involved expected to attend the college's Open Day.)
Peter McEvoy, the former world No. 1 amateur and one of Connolly’s old Warwickshire county colleagues, says it is the variety of opportunities which make Connolly’s plans so attractive. To him, the three-year course marries perfectly with what an aspiring golfer needs by way of that ever-more-important Plan B.
It is not too long ago that McEvoy spoke to a roomful of England’s most talented players in the 16-, 17- and 18-year-old age groups, and advised that only 1½ players from each group would end up making the average wage (£25,000) or better between ages 18 and 44.
“It’s the equivalent of putting your daughter on the stage – and I’m afraid the game is culpable when it comes to encouraging golfers to go down the full-time golf route without having a second string to their bow,” McEvoy said. “Even for amateur purposes, promising boys and girls will often leave school early to play full time, while those who stay the course with their schooling will not necessarily do more than a couple of years at their US college. I suspect that a lot of them think that that’s all right because it’s what Tiger (Woods) did.
“To be ruthlessly honest, plenty will turn professional because they’re no longer doing well in the amateur game. Instead of thinking that that might not bode well for their golfing futures, they seem to think they’ll play better.”
COVID-19 has exacerbated the present situation. As McEvoy says, professional golfers are primarily worth their money because they entertain. And if no-one is going to watch them, as is happening at the moment, they’re not in a position to deliver the service they’re there to deliver. Much the same applies to those on the lesser tours. Too many of them are disappearing altogether at the moment or, to put it another way, falling off the edge of the cliff.
“The only cure is education, and the older I get, the more obvious that becomes,” said McEvoy. “Which is why I would love to see the R&A falling in with the European federations in giving Neil Connolly the backing he truly deserves for his Troia venture.”